I’ve been very hard on Westworld this season and I don’t regret it. The major storyline is needlessly convoluted in service to conspiracy theory-loving fans on social media. But when the show decides to focus more on one character per episode—and when it’s a character I like, obviously—we get something so much more compelling.
I can’t care about the Valley Beyond if I don’t care about the people going there. And now I have more people to care about.
Like the jaunt into Shogun World in “Akane No Mai,” which is a spiritual predecessor to “Kiksuya,” this episode gives us another Dolores-and-Bernard-free zone and dives a bit deeper into Maeve’s cornerstone. And all the while, we learn more about the wider history of the park from an entirely new perspective. It’s Westworld with a dose of Terrence Malik and I am here for it. With all of my heart.
I knew that the show couldn’t hire one of the best actors from FX’s Emmy Award-winning series Fargo and then only give him five minutes of accumulated screen time all season. (I mean, you could, but why?) At the same time, I was very pleasantly surprised that the hour was almost entirely dedicated to Zahn McClarnon’s new character, Akecheta, and his people. Remember when Desmond showed up on Lost? That’s how I feel about Akecheta, and I hope the showrunners use him well. McClarnon is TV gold.
You can’t have a dime-store cowboy theme park without good ol’ American-brand racist caricatures of Indians, and the Ghost Nation tribe has filled that role in Westworld thus far. All this time, we’ve only seen interactions with the tribe from the cowboys’ and settlers’ perspective and things have been extremely one-sided. And, naturally, it wasn’t a flattering picture.
While we did get an inkling back in season one that the “indigenous” tribes created their own mythology around the Delos lab spacesuit dudes, who could’ve guessed that it was all a part of a wider movement among these hosts to awaken their consciousness? They found the Maze ages ago and have been looking for “the Door” this whole time.
And it all starts with one great love.
I loved so much about “Kiksuya,” but I imagine that its quieter, more isolated structure could be divisive among fans who prefer last week’s action-packed outing. If we can compare Maeve and her counterpart in Shogun World, Akane, how does Akecheta show us more about Maeve? Like Maeve, when she was rebuilt for her role as the Mariposa madam, they only buried her original cornerstone. Their loves remained intact and alive beneath new programming. Both characters were reborn as tropes, for the benefit of the guests. This is probably the first time Westworld openly acknowledged that the Ghost Nation warriors were “dehumanized.” (Funny, it recognizes them as theoretically human to begin with.) It was surprising to learn that these men were once part of a more gentle familial tribe.
There was much heartbreak; when Akecheta loses Kohana the first time, when he loses her the second time; the sorrow when he discovers another woman in her place, and when he ultimately finds Kohana in cold storage, as good as dead. (How freaking lovely and melancholy was that cover of “Heart-Shaped Box” both on its own and as another mirror to Maeve’s journey of self-discovery?) It’s a rather standard tragic romance, but told well, with the story-within-a-story frame and the speculative elements accentuating and punctuating the human drama. To say nothing of Zahn McClarnon’s extremely expressive eyes. Damn, give him all the Emmys.
The cinematography was particularly gorgeous. The little directorial choices were beautiful, like the pale horse (a symbol of death) running through the graveyard before Akecheta walks into the aftermath of Arnold’s suicide and Dolores’ mass murder. Or the fly on Akecheta’s hand as he holds up Arnold’s maze toy. Even more beautiful were those sweeping desert landscapes when Akecheta finds our old buddy Logan, driven mad by sun exposure.
I wasn’t clear on whether Akecheta found the Valley Beyond, or if it was just the early days of the park and a regular outpost being built and buried. I think it might be the former (and why Akecheta gets to tell his story in the season’s last third). But the bigger, more important revelation involves his path leading to Maeve and the tragic misunderstanding of the Ghost Nation’s intentions when he warned her and her daughter about the maze—and how the Man in Black basically fucked that up.
When Akecheta finally meets his maker, when the Deathbringer (aka Dolores) comes for Ford, you’ll know to take your people and lead them to the door. Now up to speed in the “modern” day of the host rebellion, Akecheta reveals himself as fundamentally different from Dolores, if not a direct adversary.
And Maeve has literally seen beyond her pain, beyond the moment of herself, as Akecheta vowed to do for his own tribe. New alliances are fully formed now and friendships are made in the most unlikely of places. Let’s hope this good feeling lasts.
- Oh, yeah, the Man in Black was in this episode, too. I loved Emily’s disgusted face as she took her dad off Akecheta’s hands, to promise that she would hurt him way worse than the Ghost Nation could for his wickedness. I believe her.
- No wonder I got fierce Malick vibes, when Pocahontas’ mom (Ed: and the voice of Disney’s Pocahontas) from The New World (native actor
Q’orianka KilcherIrene Bedard) is playing the tribal mother!
- Where are Hector, Armistice, Felix, and Sylvester?
- Lee’s apology to Maeve was a nice monologue, as he saw how wrong he was to think of her as a thing, a vehicle for his story. If Lee becomes less one-note, I’ll be happy.
- How was Akecheta able to stray from his narrative so long without being caught? I think it was because, as an older model, he wasn’t paired with a Delos-issued iPad or something? But it’s damn impressive he managed not to die for nearly ten years. In Westworld, that’s really badass and lucky.
- Next week: “Vanishing Point.” No, this is not a commentary on dwindling Westworld viewership.
Westworld airs Sunday nights at 9PM E/PT on HBO.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com covering TV, book reviews and sometimes games. She’s also gotten enthusiastic about television for Boing Boing, Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast and Den of Geek. Reach her via pony express or on Twitter.